English Departments and Healthcare

May 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Commentary by Bernice L. Hausman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of English; coordinator of the undergraduate minor in Medicine and Society, Virginia Tech.

In answer to a listserv question about how professors of English might benefit from interaction with health care professionals:

I think one real benefit is widening the range of impact for English studies. Even our English majors can sometimes not see the importance of their knowledge and their competencies in the larger world, and often we can only suggest to the best of them that they go to graduate school to become like us. But undergraduates in English who are educated in the medical humanities begin to see places for themselves in the policy world, in public health, and in other careers in health care. That is one specific tangible benefit.

Another benefit is widening our own sense of efficacy as faculty. We have much to offer in terms of interpreting medical discourses in the contemporary world. Susan Sontag first noted in 1977 that all experiences of cancer are metaphorized into "fights" or "battles." That terminology rages on, and impacts cultural and medical thinking and practice about cancer. Our engagement with these issues and dissemination of our ideas in the public sphere is important, and it is an often neglected element of our scholarly practice. Engagement with physicians is one place to start.

Finally, we can benefit from collaborative funding endeavors. I am currently leading a research group studying discourses of vaccine refusal. As head of a multimodal team that includes faculty (humanities and public health), graduate students, and undergraduates, I find the research synergies energizing. In addition, we are going to submit a funding proposal to the NIH or CDC concerning the social and cultural contexts of vaccine refusal. Working with physicians and other health care professionals would only strengthen our proposal. Such research projects are intellectually and socially valuable, and can potentially bring in much needed funds to humanities departments increasingly strapped for operating funds and graduate student stipends.